PIME missionary finding what is beautiful in Islam
by Piero Gheddo
A Catholic priest living among Muslims in Bangladesh talks about his existential dialogue with Islam. Learning from one another without undermining one’s identity is possible.

Dakha (AsiaNews) – Fr Carlo Buzzi is a PIME missionary who has been in Bangladesh since 1975. He went to live among Muslims from the start in order to know the Islamic faith from within. He was able to be accepted whilst remaining a Catholic priest who lives his faith and bears witness to it in building schools, helping the poor and creating a parish in Sirajgong (central zone). At the beginning he was insulted, beaten, and had the small church he built destroyed. But when people saw him give freely of himself he was accepted. He is now accepted and well-liked by everyone. Here is a conversation I had with him. (The whole interview will appear in the August-September 2009 issue of AsiaNews, in Italian).

For Father Buzzi, if you have not lived among Muslims you cannot understand Islam. It is different from the way it is presented in the media. Faith in the one God is very strong among ordinary people; their daily life is closely regulated by Islamic precepts. Rain or shine, at 6 am little boys go to the mosque with their mat till 7 am.

Islam has deep roots because praying five times a day, getting up early, and getting circumcised at the age of 6-8 years are very demanding and, for the latter, painful. Fasting is a group activity, people emulating each other; asking: “Did you fast? I did.” . . . Fasting might be something to do, but it is faced with great determination.

Then comes praying. Getting up at 5 am every day to pray is something that stays with you for your entire life. It builds character, makes you decisive and nurtures a spirit of sacrifice.

The Islam I see is strong because it creates people who experience their faith with conviction. It is true there is hypocrisy, sanctimoniousness, legalism and compulsion, but they realise it as well and for this reason they sympathise with Christians. They feel Christians are more sincere and upfront.

A mystical component is found in Islam and in my view a religion that allows mystical experiences deserves respect.

Mysticism does exist among Muslims and they do have saints. A Muslim who prays and is sincere with himself and God is a good man. Since so many Muslims are this way, praying and honest, they too experience God and cannot say: our religion is wrong.

I am Christian and I am certain that I shall never become a Muslim, so I tell Muslims: You, too, try to be good and sincere Muslims and experience God through prayer and honesty as well help and forgiveness for your fellow man.

The notion of the Ten Commandments is something pertinent to Muslims as well; similarly, when they are sincere, they are honest. For them it is also hard to be honest and sincere like it is hard for us Christians to live according to God’s Will but many are and are pained when they see so many Muslims do the wrong thing.

Here is the difference with Christianity. Many Christians believe they can speak to God and get along with him. Whilst they don’t feel they have to go to Church, they still love God and their fellow man. For them this is good enough; not so for Muslims. Muslims know that there are specific rules that they must observe: pray five times a day, go to the mosque, fast, give alms, show solidarity to those who have less than them, etc.

Whereas we focus too much on our inner self and personal conscience (which can be backward and ignorant) rather than on the observance of the law, Muslims focus too much on external, rule-based religious practices, often informed by a holier-than-thou attitude.

Jesus came to fulfill the ancient law, bring the precept of love to all, dignity to men and women . . . . This principle does not exist in Islam. Hence Jesus Christ helps us understand what Muslims need and what the Gospel can bring them.

I have no doubts there is something wrong with Islamic teachings. You are right about women as a matter of fact; and even educated Muslims know that and say so. But if they admire the Christian world on the one hand, they are quite put off on the other by our extremist and angry feminism which turns women into men, on the basis of masculine criteria.

They accept that women are entitled to the same human dignity as women. But they also believe in the complementarity of gender roles and functions in society, something which is based on nature and men’s and women’s physical and psychic difference. They fear our customs and outlook in which women set aside motherhood and have few children.

Whilst our focus is almost exclusively on individual conscience and rights; theirs is on the dutiful observance of the law.

Qur‘anic law is certainly contrary to God’s will when it comes to the differences between men and women. We Christians have created a society where rights are more important than duties; where the rights of the individual prevail over than those of communities; and where personal pleasure comes before sacrifice.

I do not know where to draw the line between the two but we can look for it together. None of us can say that everything we do is right and the Will of God, and that everything Muslims do is absolutely wrong.

What are the Islamic values people experience everyday, that you have encountered, and that teach us Christians something?

Undoubtedly it is their deep and sincere faith in God. Praying God as a sacrifice permeates everyday life and influences people, families and what is talked about. They truly believe it when they say: “We are in God’s hands . . . . We pray and do God’s will. . . .”

They also share a sense of brotherhood and do engage in mutual help. In a city of widespread poverty like Dhaka (12 million people), families have many children; yet you will not find kids left to fend for themselves in the street the way you do in many Christian cities, in places like São Paulo in Brazil. Muslims do have orphanages but as soon a child loses his parents a foster family is found right, however poor or large it may be.